(Cross posted from Dr. Palfrey’s blog.

Last month, the MacArthur Foundation, along with MIT Press, announced the release of a series of new books on youth and new media. The series is a treasure trove.

I have been working my way through the six books over the past several weeks as I’m simultaneously working on late drafts of the book that Urs Gasser and I are writing on a similar topic, called Born Digital (forthcoming, Basic Books, 2008).

I’d highly recommend to anyone remotely interested in the topic to read these books. They are academic in style, structure and language, but remarkably accessible in my view. I’m not a social scientist, nor an expert in most of the fields that are represented by the authors (in fact, I’m not sure if there are any lawyers at all in the list of authors!), but the editors and authors have done a lovely job of making their fields relevant broadly.

For starters, the series Foreword, by the group of “series advisors,” is wonderful. I can’t imagine how six people came to agree on such a clear text, but somehow they did. There must have been a lead author who held onto the pen; it’s far too coherent to have been written by committee. (The advisors are: Mizuko Ito, Cathy Davidson, Henry Jenkins, Carol Lee, Michael Eisenberg, and Joanne Weiss. One imagines that the voice of the program officer at the MacArthur Foundation who made it all possible, Connie Yowell, is in there somewhere too.)

The Foreword is worth reading in full, but a few key lines: “Unlike the early years in the development of computers and computer-based media, digital media are now commonplace and pervasive, having been taken up by a wide range of individuals and institutions in all walks of life. Digital Media have escaped the boundaries of professional and formal practice, and the academic, governmental, and industry homes that initially fostered their development.” Those are simple statements, clear and right on. One of the reasons to pay attention to this topic right now is the pervasiveness, the commonplace-ness of the use of these new media, especially by many young people.

Also, their working hypothesis: “those immersed in new digital tools and networks are engaged in an unprecedented exploration of language, games, social interaction, problem solving, and self-directed activity that leads to diverse forms of learning. These diverse forms of learning are reflected in expressions of identity, how individuals express independence and creativity, and in their ability to learn, exercise judgment, and think systematically.” The work of the series authors, I think, bears out this hypothesis quite convincingly.

At the same time, the series advisors make plain that they are not “uncritical of youth practices” and note that they do not claim “that digital media necessarily hold the key to empowerment.” It is this spirit of healthy skepticism that one can hear through most of the essays in the series — and which is essential to the academic enterprise they’ve undertaken.

So far, I’ve finished the book on “Youth, Identity, and Digital Media” (ed. by David Buckingham) and “The Ecology of Games: Connecting Youth, Games, and Learning” (ed. by Katie Salen) and am part of the way through each of the others. Each one is excellent.

In the ID book, I found particularly helpful the first piece on “Introducing Identity” by David Buckingham, which took on the hard definitional and discipline-related questions of identity in this context. He put a huge amount of scholarship into context, with sharp critiques along the way. The essay by our colleague danah boyd (on “Why Youth (heart) Social Network Sites,” a variant of which is online) is already a key document in our understanding of identity and the shifts in conceptions of public and private (”privacy in public,” and the idea of the networked public — related to but not the same as Yochai Benkler’s similar notions of networked publics). And the notion of “Identity Production as Bricolage” — introduced in “Imaging, Keyboarding, and Posting Identities” by Sandra Weber and Claudia Mitchell — is evocative and helpful, I thought. The many warnings about not “exociticizing” (danah often using the word “fetishizing”) the norms and habits of young people and their use of technology, as well as echoes of Henry Jenkins’ work on convergence and his and Eszter Hargittai’s study of the participation gap came through load and clear, too. (I am pretty sure I can hear dislike of the term “digital natives” in between certain lines, as well.)

There’s much more to like in the book, and much more to work into our own understanding of ID in this environment, than I can post here. There’s an equal amount of insight in the Games book too. (The class I am co-teaching with David Hornik starts in 31 minutes and I should probably prepare a bit more than I have already.)

-John Palfrey

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